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Casco Marina Development, LLC v. Forrestall

July 28, 2005

CASCO MARINA DEVELOPMENT, LLC, T/A JAMES CREEK MARINA PLAINTIFF,
v.
M/V FORRESTALL, ET. AL, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Royce C. Lamberth, United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Introduction

This matter comes before the court on cross-motions for summary judgment on the in rem claim for the vessel Forrestall and in personam claims against James Forrest and Charles Robinson. Plaintiff Casco Marina Development, LLC ("Casco") filed this suit after the vessel sank in February 2003, through no fault of the plaintiff, and it was forced to salvage the vessel at its own cost. Plaintiff alleges that when Charles Robinson signed the licence agreement, he was acting as master of the ship, and James Forrest was the owner, thereby making them jointly and severally liable for any delinquent slip fees, damages incurred while salvaging the vessel, interest on fees and damages, as well as contractually agreed upon attorney's fees. Upon consideration of the defendant's motion and reply, the opposition thereto, as well the relevant law, summary judgment will be granted for defendant Forrest and denied for plaintiff Casco Marina.

Factual Background

This case involves a controversy as to the ownership of the vessel Forrestall, a fifty-seven foot Chris Craft. Plaintiff filed suit to recover delinquent slip fees, as well as costs they incurred when the vessel sank through no fault of the marina. The ultimate issue to be decided is whether defendant Forrest or defendant Robinson was the true owner of the vessel, and therefore liable for all damages and fees. On or about November 1, 2000 Forrest and Robinson entered into a contract for the sale of Forrest's yacht. The agreement stated that before the closing date of May 31, 2001 Robinson would pay a deposit of $10,000, and that closing would be complete when all the necessary documents were received by the buyer and balance of $45,000 was paid to seller. See Def. SJM Ex. G (Yacht Purchase and Sale Agreement) ¶5.

On November 4, 2000, Forrest delivered the vessel to Robinson's agent at Capitol Yacht Club, who subsequently took it to plaintiff's marina. Robinson then entered into a licence agreement with Casco to keep the vessel at the marina. Robinson signed the agreement as the "owner of the vessel", but the contract provided that if more than one person enters into the agreement, they are jointly and severally liable. See Plaintiff Ex. 1 (Licence Agreement). After the vessel was delivered, Robinson began to make the payments, but only paid Forrest $2000. Forrest then wrote to the Coast Guard, advising that title renewal documents for this vessel should be sent to Robinson, but Forrest did not prepare an official bill of sale, nor did he notify the harbor master that he had sold the vessel. Def. Ex. B. Robinson never retitled the vessel in his name, so the last name on the official title was Mr. Forrest's. All documentation including title and insurance had lapsed by 2001. Def. SJM Ex. A (Forrest Affidavit) at 1.

In September 2001 Forrest filed suit in Anne Arundel Circuit Court against Robinson for monetary damages for breach of contract on the sale of the vessel. Because Robinson neither answered nor appeared in front of the court, a default judgment was entered into the record on the issue of liability for the breach. Robinson did appear in court on the issue of damages, though he presented no evidence, and it was decided that another hearing to decide damages would be unnecessary. The court ordered that Robinson pay the full outstanding portion of the contract which was $43,000. Def. SJM Ex. D (Case C-01-74546 Transcript) at 10.

During this time, the vessel was docked at plaintiff's marina, but Mr. Robinson had paid little or none of the slip fees which were owed to the marina. After unsuccessfully trying to contact Mr. Robinson, plaintiff wrote a letter to Forrest to find out who the title holder was, so they could collect the fees or force the owner to remove the vessel. Mr. Forrest, believing Mr. Robinson to be the owner, did not respond to the letter. Plaintiff MSJ Ex. 2. In February 2002, plaintiff sent another letter to Forrest stating they knew his name was the last one on the title, and that it was trying to get the title to the vessel. Plaintiff MSJ Ex. 3. Again, thinking that Mr. Robinson was truly the owner. Mr. Forrest did not answer the letter. On or about February 3, 2003 the vessel sank in plaintiff's marina, most likely due to not being winterized. Casco wrote Mr. Forrest requiring that he remove the vessel. Mr. Forrest did not respond, but after the marina threatened that if he did not authorize the removal he would be liable for civil and criminal penalties, Mr. Forrest authorized the marina to salvage the vessel, even though he did not believe he actually had the power to do so. Def. SJM Ex. A at 3.

In October 2003, plaintiff filed suit against Forrest and Robinson, but in March 2004, the court entered a default against Robinson. In July, the court further entered a default judgment against Robinson in the amount of $49,910.36 plus prejudgment interest, plus attorney's fees, plus costs, plus post-judgment interest at the legal rate, after which Robinson was terminated from this lawsuit. Forrest then filed a third party claim, and subsequently motions for summary judgment were filed by both remaining parties.

Legal Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate when "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). To determine which facts are "material," a court must look to the substantive law on which each claim rests. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A "genuine issue" is one whose resolution could establish an element of a claim or defense and consequently affect the outcome of the action. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322.

In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the court must draw all justifiable inferences in the nonmoving party's favor and accept the nonmoving party's evidence as true. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. If summary judgment is denied, there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the non-moving party. Id. at 252. A nonmoving party, must establish more than a "mere existence of a scintilla of evidence" in support of its position. Id. Furthermore, if the non-moving party "fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial," summary judgment may be granted. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322.

Analysis

Because the basic facts are undisputed, the sole question fo this court is who is the owner of the vessel, and therefore liable for fees and damages. Defendant Forrest argues that the Court may grant his motion for summary judgment on either the theory that issue of ownership has already been decided, and is therefore barred by the doctrine of issue preclusion, or that if this issue is not barred, the sales contract proves that Robinson is the true owner of the vessel. Plaintiff replies ...


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